junior doctors union leader has insisted he is “still working” while on holiday during four days of NHS strikes.
But the British Medical Association (BMA) junior doctors committee co-chairman Dr Robert Laurenson also said he is “sorry” if striking colleagues feel his absence, to attend a wedding, has undermined their cause.
Dr Laurenson made headlines by taking a holiday to attend the wedding amid the junior doctors strikes over demands for a full pay restoration that the Government said would amount to a 35% pay rise.
I am determined and committed to doctors and winning. Me being physically in a different location shouldn’t change anything
The 28-year-old defended his absence from picket lines after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday said he was “surprised to read” Dr Laurenson was on holiday.
“I can see that you feel undermined and I am really sorry my actions have contributed to that,” Dr Laurenson reportedly wrote in an online forum.
“The thing most important to me is the integrity of the unity of doctors and that is why I’m at pains to be as transparent as possible and accountable as possible.”
He said he was invited to this wedding in autumn 2022, adding: “I am always responsive on my phone to the needs of my role at the BMA including being in hospital strike WhatsApp groups across the country to answer queries.
“I am determined and committed to doctors and winning.
“Me being physically in a different location shouldn’t change anything.
“I have an amazing co-chair. We have a negotiation team that doesn’t need me and has strict parameters.
“I am still in touch, still attending meetings, and still working.”
It comes as a minister suggested junior doctors must suspend all strikes for the Government to consider entering talks facilitated by conciliation service Acas in a bid to end the bitter pay dispute.
Acas has said it is “well prepared and ready to help” and the BMA is urging ministers to get round the table to try to break the deadlock.
But Home Office minister Chris Philp said the junior doctors committee should halt “extremely damaging strike action” for discussions take place.
Touring broadcast studios on Thursday, the minister suggested Health Secretary Steve Barclay’s door would be “open” – as long as the BMA contacts him directly and offers to bring industrial action to a standstill in the interim.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it remains open to a role for Acas but reiterated talks cannot take place until junior doctors drop their demand for a 35% pay increase and end the strike.
A spokesman said: “We’ve been engaging with Acas during this dispute and remain open to considering whether there is a role for them to help us reach the desired outcome – an end to strike action which is putting patient safety at risk.
“But our position remains that the junior doctors council needs to significantly reduce its demand for a 35% pay increase and pause action for formal talks to begin and that will not change.”
On Wednesday, Mr Sunak said he wanted to find a “reasonable compromise” with junior doctors.
The chairman of the BMA council, Professor Philip Banfield, said: “In the face of a constant refusal from the Health Secretary to agree to further talks and put forward a credible offer which could bring an end to the dispute, we believe that working with Acas provides the most realistic chance of a successful outcome to the negotiations.
“The BMA has no preconditions to talks and has consistently sought to negotiate with the Government.
“It takes both sides of a dispute to want to find a solution, and we urge the Health Secretary to show the same willingness that we have and make himself available and open to talks facilitated by Acas.”
Hospital bosses have expressed concern about keeping patients safe as they struggle to secure cover for overnight junior doctor shifts during strikes.
The health service’s top doctor, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, has warned that the situation in the NHS will “become more challenging each day this strike progresses”.
During the strikes, staff who are still working have prioritised emergency and urgent care over some routine appointments and procedures to ensure safe care for those in life-threatening situations.
This means hundreds of thousands of appointments and operations have been rescheduled.
The BMA claims junior doctors in England have seen a 26% real-terms pay cut since 2008/09 because rises have been below inflation.